Honey bees are a two-generation business for the Obertons

More than 2,500 hives help family harvest tens of thousands of pounds of the sweet product

By Tina SnellStaff Writer

The Oberton family of Randall has been in the bee business for two generations. Before that, the Obertons ran a dairy operation for two generations. They haven’t been on the land for 100 years yet, but Will Oberton said it is getting close.

Standing in front of hundreds of unoccupied hives and dozens of 55-gallon drums containing honey to be shipped to Iowa, are (from left): Will, Gary and Jim Oberton.

Will’s father, Gary, began the business as more of a hobby than anything else. He had found a wild swarm of bees and that sparked his interest. When his father, Russell, decided to retire from the dairy business, Gary made the decision to change over to the honey business and the Oberton Honey Farm was born. That was in 1981.

Will and his brother Jim grew up helping their father with the honey business. After graduating from the University of Minnesota (Will with a degree in biology and Jim with a degree in agriculture economics), the two brothers decided to get into the bee and honey business with their father.

Billy Borunda, an employee at the Oberton Honey Farm, works at extracting honey from the supers, a smaller version of the man-made hives.

In 2001, Paul Peterson of Long Prairie retired from his honey operation and sold the Obertons his stock of bees. The Oberton Honey Farm currently has more than 2,500 hives on land from Motley to Melrose.  They have set up in 80 locations with 32 hives in each.

But, the lucky bees don’t have to spend their winters in Minnesota. The Obertons send them, by truck, to Modesto, Calif., each November to pollinate almond trees. The bees return in the spring.

“My wife Carmen and I go out to California each January to check on the bees and make sure they are healthy,” said Will. “While they arrive in California in November, they aren’t placed in the fields until February. The bees remain dormant during the California winter until February.”

Honey bee

Will said that two parasites, tracheal and varroa mites, tick-like bugs, cause the honey bees to sicken and takes away their ability to survive during the winter. It saves their lives to send them to California.

“When the honey bees return in the spring, they raise new queens and make new hives,” said Will. “The number of our hives fluctuates.”

The Oberton Honey Farm adds “supers” to the hives in the spring. It’s similar to a hive box, but smaller. This is done to increase the honey production during dandelion season, which typically begins May 15.

“The supers add combs to the hive,” said Will. “When dandelions are finished, basswood season begins, which is the main source for our honey.”

At the end of July, the honey extraction begins and it runs through mid-September, about a two-month process.

“We remove the supers and leave the honey in the main hives for the bees to eat during the winter,” said Will. “An average hive needs about 200 pounds of honey each year to survive.”

Using centrifugal force, the honey is removed from the supers and stored in 55 gallon drums. It’s then sent to Sue Bee Honey in Iowa for processing. The Obertons produce tens of thousands of pounds of honey each year.

Honey, because of its properties, will last for centuries, as long as it’s not mixed with water. Will said archaeologists have been known to eat the honey found buried from ancient times.

After the honey has been extracted from the supers, the honey bees are fed corn syrup to make up for the hive’s loss. While most corn syrup contains genetically modified corn, Will said it has not affected the honey bees or the honey.

“People think honey bees are dangerous, but they aren’t,” said Will. “We use a veil when extracting, but rarely any other protective clothing, not even gloves. We use a smoker, burning burlap or pine needles, to calm the bees which makes it easier to get the bees off the supers. Or we introduce a pungent chemical repellent that the honey bees dislike. They leave the hive and we are able to get the honey.”

To be safe around the farm, those working with heavy machinery are always conscious of their surroundings so no one gets hurt.

A beekeeper knows his or her bees. They can tell when a bee is mad, or what may upset a bee. Workers know to avoid those situations. Will said the fastest way to make a bee mad is to threaten the hive.

“We don’t bang on the hive or tip it over. We also use the smoke correctly,” said Will. “Honey bees will also get upset when there are no more flowers to get pollen from in the late fall and beginning of winter.”

Bees live about six weeks in the summer, depending on how hard they work. They live about six months in the winter.

The Obertons were named the Farm Family of the Year in Morrison County for 2012.